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September 08, 2011

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Tim Dees Police Tech & Gear
with Tim Dees

Keep your personal information out of online databases

The problem of keeping your private information private has been aggravated recently by the hacking of law enforcement networks

With good reason, cops have always been careful about keeping their personal lives separate from their professional lives. Conventional wisdom says that a cop should get his mail at a post office box to keep his physical home address confidential, maintain an unpublished telephone listing, and take advantage of the system some state motor vehicle bureaus have where they will hide the address associated with an officer’s personal vehicle and driver’s license in a routine inquiry. These are all sound practices, but they’re less effective than was the case in my day, before the proliferation of online data mining services.

Data mining services probe the extensive network of online databases and gather information they then sell to third parties. Unless you go to Unabomber-level “off the grid” measures, there is no practical way to keep your information away from these services. We’ve all got some combination of driver’s licenses, vehicles, real estate, credit card accounts, marriage and birth records, etc. out there, and the companies that hold this information can often increase their profits by selling it.

Even before my first law enforcement job, I was careful to keep my physical address and phone out of the public eye, or so I thought. Until recently, my landline telephone service was through my cable TV provider, and I paid extra each month for an unpublished listing. Imagine my reaction when I got a letter from them advising that they had “unintentionally” included my phone number in a listing of published numbers they sold to a phone directory company. Worse yet, although my bills came to a post office box, the address associated with the number they told everyone about was my physical address, where I got my service. They changed the phone number for free, but they declined to buy my house and move me to another one.

I’ve talked before about the importance of creating strong passwords and watching what information you make available to social networks like Facebook. You can also take steps to limit what information is available through data mining vendors like Zabasearch and PeopleFinders.

• Do a search for your name on any data mining service you can locate and request the service remove your information from their database. Most will comply. There is a list of the major players in this industry, with instructions on how to request exclusion from their listings, here.
• Contact the Direct Marketing Association and file a request to be removed from the lists their members maintain and sell. You can select the type(s) of lists you want to target, e.g. magazine subscriptions, credit card offers, etc.
• Consider subscribing to a privacy service that actively monitors the internet and files information removal requests on your behalf. DeleteMe is one of these, although I haven’t tried it and have no way of knowing how effective they are.
• Obtain a phone number from Google Voice and link it to your other phone numbers (home, office, cell, etc.) selectively. The service is free, the numbers aren’t associated with your name, and you can set it to ring all your phones at the same time, or place a “Do Not Disturb” on them during hours you choose. Give out the Google Voice number instead of your personal phone number.
• Register your phone numbers with the Federal Trade Commission’s Do Not Call Registry, or call (888) 382-1222 from the phone(s) you want excluded.
• Have your mail sent to a post office box—one at a real post office, not a private vendor. The Postal Service has rules about what information they will give out and who they will give it to. The private services make it up as they go along.

While it’s unusual for bad guys to hunt down officers at their homes to terrorize them or their families, it’s not unknown. Don’t make it easy for someone to do so.

About the author

Tim Dees is a writer, editor, trainer, and former law enforcement officer. After 15 years as a police officer with the Reno Police Department and elsewhere in Northern Nevada, Tim taught criminal justice as a full-time professor and instructor at colleges in Wisconsin, West Virginia, Georgia, and Oregon.

He was also a regional training coordinator for the Oregon Dept. of Public Safety Standards & Training, providing in-service training to 65 criminal justice agencies in central and eastern Oregon.

Tim has written more than 300 articles for nearly every national law enforcement publication in the United States, and is the author of The Truth About Cops, published by Hyperink Press. In 2005, Tim became the first editor-in-chief for Officer.com, moving to the same position for LawOfficer.com at the beginning of 2008. He now writes on applications of technology in law enforcement from his home in SE Washington state.

Tim holds a bachelor’s degree in biological science from San José State University, a master’s degree in criminal justice from The University of Alabama, and the Certified Protection Professional credential from ASIS International. He serves on the executive board of the Public Safety Writers Association.

Dees can be reached at tim.dees@policeone.com.

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